Dominion Energy-Linked Group Launches $300K Ad Blitz After Texas Storm
A group connected to Dominion Energy has spent at least $300,000 on TV and Facebook ads in the last two months warning consumers against deregulating the state’s utility market. The ads warn blackouts that blanketed Texas in February could come to Virginia if the state changes existing electric providers' monopolies, a claim that some experts say is misleading.
Information on the leadership and structure of the group, Power for Tomorrow, is not available on its website. But it is funded at least in part by Dominion, according to the utility, and chaired by three politically-connected public relations consultants.
PFT has so far spent at least $220,000 in TV ads focused on Virginia and Washington DC TV markets since late March, according to Federal Communications Commission filings. The true total is likely far higher, as VPM did not review all FCC invoices. One TV adreferences the Texas outages and warns viewers that “some Richmond politicians want to make the same mistake here” by deregulating electrical utility markets. The group has also spent more than $90,000 in Facebook ads targeted at users in Virginia. Both include prompts for viewers to send form letters to lawmakers lobbying against any changes to the state's electricity markets.
The role of deregulation in Texas’ blackout remain up for debate. Joshua Rhodes, a research fellow at the Webber Energy Group at the University of Texas at Austin, said Texas’ grid was pushed to a breaking point by the extreme cold, with delayed natural gas deliveries as well as frozen wind turbines and iced-over cooling ponds.
“I really don't think it mattered if Texas were deregulated or regulated,” Rhodes said. “I don't think we would have planned for something like this.”
Kelly Roache, a researcher and spokesperson for the energy watchdog group Energy and Policy Institute, which first identified PFT’s ad campaign, said the group’s messaging was “not evidence based.”
“The form that deregulation takes in Texas is very different from any of the proposals that have been floated in Virginia,” Roache said.
The spending is the latest in an increasingly costly fight over the future of Virginia’s electrical utility regulations. Dominion Energy, which has an electricity monopoly across much of the commonwealth, has seen its political dominance in Richmond challenged by hedge fund investor Michael Bills, whose group, Clean Virginia, accuses the utility of abetting “legalized corruption” in the General Assembly. In 2019, the organization joined a new, bipartisan group that included former GOP state attorney general Ken Cuccinelli with the goal of deregulating Virginia's electricity market, though legislative efforts toward that goal have so far stalled.
Clean Virginia has faced its own criticism of buying influence as it has poured millions into state races, including $600,000 to gubernatorial hopeful Jennifer Carroll Foy ahead of a June 8 primary. In early April, an anonymous Twitter account called "CleanVirginiaTruth" joined the platform and posted an ad attacking the group for its link with Cuccinelli and connecting deregulation to the blackouts in Texas. It has since repeatedly criticized Carroll Foy and other recipients of Clean Energy's contributions. Spokespersons for Power for Tomorrow and Dominion Energy said their organizations had no link to the account.
Dominion Energy Action, a communication wing focused on shareholders, employees and retirees, sent out an email in April on a joint header with Power for Tomorrow highlighting the group’s ads. The email directed users to a Dominion Energy Action email address to answer questions.
Dominion Energy spokesperson Rayhan Daudani said the company is “proud to support Power for Tomorrow and its efforts to educate people about the dangers of electric deregulation” but did not directly respond to questions about its role in the organization’s operations. He said the company’s political contributions, including those to PFT, were “bipartisan and transparent” and did not come from customer’s bills.
Power for Tomorrow first announced its presence in October with a press release and white paper arguing against restructuring utility markets. The press release said Wilkinson Barker Knauer, a law firm specializing in communications and technology, created the group.
In March, the group registered as a 501(c)(6) non-profit in Delaware and registered with Virginia’s State Corporation Commission shortly thereafter. It then issued a second press release announcing its formation on March 25 that made no mention of the law firm, connecting its formation to a series of crippling electrical blackouts in Texas in February caused by winter storm Uri.
While the group’s website lists a panel of energy industry experts, there’s no mention of the group’s funding or leadership on its website.
The group’s SCC filings list three public relations experts -- Brian Doory, Brian Rogers and Gary Meltz -- as chairman, vice chair, and secretary of PFT, respectively. Doory is a Democratic political consultant and public affairs consultant, and registered as the group's lobbyist in Richmond in April. Rogers was a longtime advisor to former Sen. John McCain. He also previously led a GOP opposition firm that deployed so-called “trackers” to trail environmental activists connected with Democratic mega-donor Tom Steyer with video cameras, according to POLITICO.
Meltz, a former press secretary to Rep. Eliot Engel (D-New York), who now heads his own public relations firm, answered emails for the group’s media email address, describing himself as Power for Tomorrow’s executive director. He argued the group was “transparent by design” but declined to provide the source of the group’s funding or its ad spending figures, saying that information would be released in the organization’s 990 tax forms.
Meltz said Wilkinson Barker Knauer had turned over the PFT website to the new nonprofit in the aftermath of Winter Storm Uri.
“The link between everyone in Power for Tomorrow — policy experts, former elected officials, Democrats, Republicans, labor, utilities and consumer advocates — is a shared belief that deregulation leads to higher bills for regular customers and an influx of unscrupulous third party retailers who take advantage of less sophisticated customers,” Meltz wrote in an email.
Dominion opposed a bill introduced last year by Del. Mark Keam (D-Fairfax) that would have deregulated parts of Virginia’s retail electrical market. A House committee bumped consideration of the bill to 2021, but neither that provision or any other large-scale deregulation measures were taken up in this year’s session.